It has been easy this year to confuse working from home with the idea of flexible working. Being restricted in our ability to see colleagues, clients or business connections has, to many minds, actually felt prohibitive and inflexible.
Countless discussions will have taken place between senior leaders. On one hand, we weigh the benefits of having teams and employees based together in offices, and the collegiality, culture, sharing of ideas, and efficiencies which that can create. On the opposite hand, we reflect on the benefits of working from home, and the saving of commuting time and cost.
Also in that conundrum are the costs of maintaining large office footprints, as against the savings of having a more agile workforce using homeworking (but with the need to get on top of issues relating to homeworking, such as health and safety, and provision of equipment).
Some employees prefer greater flexibility and the ability to work from home; others desire to attend work at an office where they have an environment specifically designed for work, and where they can interact with colleagues and receive support and development.
The benefits of the flexibility for people that homeworking brings can, at times, oppose the need in certain circumstances for colleagues and managers to assist and line manage employees who need support or to improve their performance.
The easy and perhaps logical answer is to find middle ground – a “new normal” where there will be a return to offices, coupled with greater flexibility than would have been envisaged pre-pandemic.
Place of work
To my mind, there is more to it. Employees all have contracts. The vast majority of employment contracts denote a place of work. In some situations, that place of work incorporates a degree of flexibility.
A change to that place of work was forced by the COVID-19 measures, especially for office workers or those able to migrate quickly to homeworking. The calls for flexible working practices to be central to the “new norm” increased.
However, flexible working is not, and never has been, just being able to work from home. It is about finding a balance between home and working life that enables healthy and productive relationships. Although certain employees have found to benefit from homeworking, and it has allowed businesses to remain operational to varying degrees, there have also been many latent costs.
Widely reported has been the impact on mental wellbeing. Being isolated from friends, family and pastimes has been detrimental, but so has separation from our working environment.
To go further, there is a school of thought that we are not simply paid to perform our jobs to the letter. We are paid to also contribute towards our workplace culture, to innovation. We are part of a workplace support structure, where we look after our peers and they look after us.
Being separated from our workplace diminishes our contribution to workplace culture, innovation and peer support. A move to permanent homeworking, or rather a refusal to return to COVID-secure workplaces, for some, is a denouncement of the latent responsibilities in their contract of employment.
Where businesses have invested time, effort and significant cost in making COVID-secure workplaces, in having stronger flexible working practices where equilibrium between home and work can be found, there is no harm in wanting your people back at their place of work. On the contrary, for some, it may well be exactly what they need. This move can claw back some of the lost innovation, repair wounded cultures and re-align the workplace support structures that have been sorely missed this past year.
Musab Hemsi is a partner at LexLeyton
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